Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Carmina Burana @ Barbican Hall, London

17 November 2007

Bernstein referred to his Chichester Psalms as “the most B-flat majorish tonal piece I’ve ever written.”

The work was commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival, hence its uplifting quality, the three movements’ colourful melodic and harmonic ideas eventually drawing inwards to a transcendental Amen on a unison G.

Richard Hickox brought to the work a tremendous sense of shape.

All of Bernstein’s colourful ideas coalesced into one sweeping arch: the strong, stomping rhythms of the first movement, the hushed A major beauty of the second, the third’s endlessly sustained and majestically climaxing string lines. In the second movement, above the harp ripplings rose miniature Jesus Duque‘s beautiful treble, occasionally wobbling but otherwise retaining a steady, shapely musical line. This was a gorgeous piece of singing, communicative and captivating, reminding me of young Thomas Kelly’s equally commendable rendition on the Naxos recording under Marin Alsop.

Just as Bernstein’s composition communicates through the clearest musical means, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana uses simple melodic ideas, firmly-articulated rhythms and basic structures (there is little complex motivic development) to appeal directly to its various audiences. Yet the work has a troubled past. The very simpleness and economy of its composition renders it worthless to some, and many are troubled that this music, similarly to Wagner’s, is strongly linked to 1940s Nazi Germany. Then in 1976, Pier Paolo Pasolini concluded his final film, Sal, a controversial study of fascism, with a sequence of horrific bloody violence, set to the Veris leta facies from Orff’s work. Connections such as these can be hard to forget.

The London Symphony Orchestra performed the work with all the commitment and exuberance that one expects from them. Crescendi were lengthy and spherically phrased, climaxes bursting from the texture furiously and colourfully. The dance rhythms truly bounced. The London Symphony Chorus, who had, to me, sounded suspiciously tentative in the Bernstein, sang courageously, but with an accent that occasionally seemed too English, lacking some Latin angularity and fire. Some of the choral sections lost momentum from the performance.

The three soloists were outstanding, singing with a unified dynamic power and depth of expression that is rare to find today. Christopher Maltman‘s baritone is large, and he dramatically, almost operatically, projected every emotion and quirk in the text. Orff was keen, throughout his career, to create total theatre, an indivisible combination of words, music and movement. Maltman, even when standing completely still, managed to match the composer’s ideal. Scarcely less good were tenor Barry Banks and soprano Laura Claycomb. The former screamed out his aria, but there’s not much else one can do with such idiotically high vocal writing; the latter was dignified of stature and limpid of tone.

Claycomb was fractionally less effective in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, composed in 1947. Though she enunciated very clearly and slotted her soprano sensuously into the languid vocal lines, too many words were lost in Hickox’ possibly overstated orchestral textures. Even given that this work is sung in English, the lack of printed text here was a serious omission.

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